Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy of manners “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a zany confection, relying on mistaken identity and outrageous coincidences. Director Jeffrey VanderByl preserves Wilde’s organized madness without losing his perceptive satire of a straitlaced, snobbish society. Aided by a first-rate cast, “Earnest” hurtles along, skillfully negotiating the line between broadness and believability.
Setting the plot in motion is John Worthing (Ethan David Kent), who escapes a staid country existence by creating an irresponsible, hell-raising imaginary brother named Earnest and living Earnest’s wild life when alone in London. His friend Algernon (Neal Moeller) also invents a fictitious counterpart, Bunbury, which allows him to break free of his domineering, aristocratic aunt, Lady Bracknell (Pat Lach).
Worthing’s masquerade backfires when he wants to marry Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen (Sarah Dammann) and finds her attraction to him largely based on love for his false name, Earnest. Algernon complicates matters by pursuing Worthing’s ward, Cecily (Jennifer Claire Westin), and posing as the non-existent Earnest to win her affections. Misunderstandings multiply, along with Lady Bracknell’s opposition to the marriage between Worthing and her daughter because Worthing was a foundling, discovered at birth in a leather bag at Victoria Railway Station.
Others who become embroiled in the problems of the four lovers are Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism (Verna Chilton), and Rev. Canon Chasuble (King Stuart), the clergyman she secretly desires. Chilton and Stuart are amusing, if occasionally too coy, and Chilton rises to the occasion when forced to admit the disastrous mistake that turned Worthing into an orphan.
As Algernon, Moeller has a delightfully devilish, charismatic quality. Algernon is supposed to be a rake who runs up debts, and is, in Lady Bracknell’s words, “a man who has nothing, but looks everything.” At first superficial and mocking, he shows his mettle when courting Cecily, expressing an intense and convincing passion.
Kent also cuts a dashing figure as Jack Worthing, but he has a tendency to pose and strike artificial attitudes. Even allowing for the material, his delivery is sometimes so dizzyingly fast that crucial comedic lines are lost. Dramatically, however, he gives many scenes a shot in the arm with powerful reactions that shatter the play’s serene, genteel surface.
Dammann is a radiantly appealing Gwendolen. She stays in period, yet subtly confronts her controlling mother and shows the steel beneath her proper Victorian demeanor. Westin scores strongly in a less colorful role, and David Lewison as Lane, the stuffy, proper butler, is so hilariously mechanical and dour that he nearly steals the show. Lach’s Lady Bracknell has the requisite haughtiness, but she isn’t the frightening old dragon she should be, and lacks needed extravagance and eccentricity.
Sumptuous, often breathtaking costumes by Stacy Adamski and Katrina Werner set an authentic tone and make the otherwise modest production visually engaging. Above all, director VanderByl sustains a sense of the 19th century while providing a modern sensibility to which today’s audiences can readily relate.